David McCullough

History is the Story of People. Not Events


Interview and photography by Paul Giambarba from CapeArts 2, 1981

THE ORIGINAL INTERVIEW took place twenty years ago. David McCullough was then a well known author, but not the celebrity he is today. Since then he has won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of President Truman and has been in our living rooms for many years on PBS hosting the American Experience, narrating David Burns' The Civil War, and other special events. I've added some items to bring the article up to date but I dare not touch the original interview.

 

DAVID McCULLOUGH looks the part and is the embodiment of a successful writer. He lives comfortably on Martha's Vineyard with his attractive wife, Rosalee, whom he described in a Commencement Address at Hamilton College just two years ago as: "The most important person in my life, my editor-in-chief, my brain trust, my mission control, my first wife, my present wife..."

He is tall, trim, and charming. In a tattersall-checked shirt and faded chinos he's more believable in the role than all the actors who have played the part. Probably because the writer in this case is real and, as so, unpretentious. David McCullough is twice a winner of the National Book Award and of the prestigious Francis Parkman Prize. For his monumental Truman he received the Pulitzer Prize.

I spent five hours in the genial and hospitable company of David and Rosalee McCullough. The interview produced the proverbial surfeit of riches -- so many profoundly illuminating observations that they need no exposition. That which follows is David McCullough, verbatim.

I WORKED FOR TIME-LIFE and then went to Washington during the Kennedy administration to work for the USIA when Ed Murrow was at its head. Then I came back to New York and worked as an editor and writer at American Heritage for six years. And I was writing, nights and weekends, a book which turned out to be The Johnstown Flood, which had a wonderful reception, much more than we expected. It gave me a grub stake to cut away and try writing full time.

Rosalee and I sold our house in White Plains and got out, trying to cut costs. We moved first to Middlebury, Vermont, and loved it. But I found I was really out of touch up there. This surprises some people who say, "How out of touch can you be now, living on an island?" What they don't realize is that I can be in my publisher's office as quickly as it once took me to get from Wilton, Connecticut, where I was living and commuting -- by taking the morning flight right out of the airport, five minutes from here! I actually get to New York a little too early: they don't open up down there until 9:30 or 10 o'clock, and I have to get a cup of coffee somewhere and wait for the business day to begin.

Also, there's such a constant flow of people coming to the Island, not just in the summertime, either, but on weekends...people who are in work that represents a world beyond these shores...people who are fun to talk to and who are stimulating...who keep the brain from turning into a pudding.

We don't see people, except on weekends; I'm working most of the time. I work very hard. We've made wonderful friends who don't live on Martha's Vineyard but who come here in the summer or on weekends. And we've made terrific friends who live here year-round. The diversity of backgrounds and places of origin, even in a little town like West Tisbury is extraordinary. Right up and down this street, the professions that are represented by retired people, the avocations represented by people doing independent work of different kinds, is really remarkable.

One of the wildest misconceptions is that writing is a solitary pursuit. Nonsense. It really isn't! You have to go see people to do your research; you get to interview people. You get to meet people who are working at your publishing house. In my kind of writing, one subject may be engineering, the next subject may be politics. You get to know all about different professions, meeting those kinds of people. Not it is not solitary.

Another misconception is that writing is somehow easy. The hardest thing of all is to make it look easy. It's like anything else -- a great batter, a great tennis player -- they make it look easy, but it isn't. The other thing is that I don't think there's any such thing as a Muse, for example. It's going out there every day and doing it. That's what it is. It's working.

When I'm in my studio I wouldn't rather be anywhere else in the world. The idea that I can make a living doing what I'd rather do than anything else, is, to me, just a miracle. It's a gift that every day I can do that. And when I think of the unpleasant or seemingly pointless days that other people spend in their lines of work, I realize how blessed I am. I have terrific support in Rosalee. I would rather go out there and work on a book I really want to write than anything I know.

All of my books are derived out of a great ignorance. I've never known much about any subject that I started. When I started it, I didn't know anything about the Panama Canal. I didn't know anything about the Brooklyn Bridge. I didn't know anything much about Theodore Roosevelt...certainly I knew nothing about asthma, absolutely nothing about his mother and father. And, as I said earlier, if I had known, I don't think I would have wanted to write the book. It's the discovery; it's getting on the track; it's the accelerative quality of curiosity. It's like gravity -- it accelerates...the more you find out, the more you want to find out, and that's a great time...boy, it's wonderful!

The real fun of what I do is in doing it. The reviews are gratifying and sometimes thrilling, the awards, the wonderful letters from readers...all that is terrific. I dearly love it and need it, but the real fun is in going out there and doing it. My favorite book is always the book I'm working on.

1981

I'm a pretty fast typist. I work on the typewriter. I compose on the typewriter and that comes from having worked on magazines. I rewrite. If I can produce two typewritten pages that I'm satisfied with in a morning, then I'm moving along just fine. Four in a day. I'm out there all day. In my work it isn't all writing. I'm reading. I'm checking notes. Mulling. I do a lot of mulling. Looking up quotations or facts or whatever...it's not just writing. When I'm really working full out, four good pages a day is what I aim for.

I rewrite as I go along. I don't write a first draft, so called, and then rewrite the whole book. I could never do that. I'm building as I go along. So when the chapter is finished -- except for later on when I might come back and edit when it's been retyped -- I feel that's it.

I work from an outline, but I keep revising it as I go along. I've never gone to a publisher with an outline. My outline is strictly for me. It's a guide, mainly to show where you begin and where you end and sort of how it's going to be. But it's always changing, mainly because it picks up a life of its own. And you change as you go along. Take a book of my kind, on which you're spending four years. Well, four years later, you're not the same person you were four years before. And, more obviously, your knowledge of the subject has become much deeper: there's more range and sensitivity to what your mind is able to grasp in all this. So that, very often, I've had the experience that when I'm nearing the end of the book, I realize that the first part -- that I wrote in the beginning -- is not quite the same tone of voice.

The real insights start to happen for me after I'm well into it because you begin to make connections which you didn't make before. You begin to see what you didn't see then. Conrad said, "Writing is seeing." He was right. It is. My great feeling is that you have to see a subject in context. If I have an operational word it's context. I try to see the story in the context of a lot of things that other writers on the subject have not bothered with.

A subject like the Panama Canal, let's say. My effort there was to see that event, that achievement, in the context of politics, of history, of medicine, the geology of Central America, the advent of certain technology in the late nineteenth century which was changing what could be accomplished, what could be proposed...to see it in the context of our North American view of Latin America -- all those. Finance -- a French company went broke; it was the biggest financial collapse in the history of the world up to that point. So that meant that I had to know an awful lot about how that came about and why that was. That same story unleashed the first serious outbreak of anti-Semitism in France. So I had to understand what that was all about. It eventually let to the Dreyfus affair.

In the Roosevelt book, I've tried to see that individual, not just in the context of his family who were the closest to him and most important to him, but also to see the family in the context of a particular social class in which they were prominent. And, then, to see that social class in the context of New York City, circa 1970 to 1885, 1886, and so forth. To see their income in the context of the times, for example. Not to look at those dollar figures that people quote and say, "That's what it was." You have to ask "What does it mean in scale?"

I think the training that I had, the experience I had in drawing and painting has helped me enormously in this work. Because one thing you do learn about is scale. And proportions. To see events and facts, if you will, or personalities, in proportion. Teddy Roosevelt says, "My inheritance meant that I would have an income of $8,000 a year. That made me comfortable, but not rich." Every biographer who has ever written about Roosevelt has taken that statement and just played it back at face value. So I thought, "Well, what did that mean in his time?" And I found that what it meant, and it's an astonishing thing to discover, is that his income was more than that of the president of Harvard, who earned $5,000.

History is the story of people. The events are the people...unless it's a natural event. Krakatoa goes off. That really has nothing to do with people except that it has a lot to do with how people responded to it, how they felt about it, who got killed, and so forth. Very few professional historians are, at heart, interested in people. And that's one of the reasons that so much that is written in the way of history, and in the teaching of history, is boring. I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said, "Oh, if history had only been taught like that when I was in school, I would have become a history major."

Well, there isn't any other way to do it, in my view. That's what history is, and the crucial thing is to feel, not just to know, but to feel that people of the past were just as real, just as alive, just as prey to the same emotions, fears, exhilarations -- whatever -- that we are. And the only thing that is different is their time was different from our time, but they didn't think they were living in The Past.

I want to make a point. I use photography as a bibliographic source. I study old nineteenth century photos in order to learn about the past. One of the reasons we feel people in the old days weren't quite human -- or certainly were very different from us -- that they weren't bathed in the same light we're bathed in, that there wasn't air around them the way there is air around us -- is that they see those old photographs taken with a certain type of camera which gave that precise clarity, and you have those people with those somber looks, stiff, and so forth. If you look at enough of those pictures, you begin to think those people weren't alive, the way we are alive. The great antidote, the great cure for that feeling is to go and look at something like the Pisarro show in Boston and see that it's a nineteenth century man painting life, painting light, air, the sense that we're creatures in space...it's the same as we are now. And I think that maybe the artist may turn out to be the great historian.

To think that photography is reality is one of the great hoaxes of our time. Very often, photography is more of an abstraction than painting. Far more. Those nineteenth century black-and-white photographs are far more removed from reality than the paintings of the nineteenth century masters. I kept a large book of paintings by American impressionists on my shelf while I was writing the Roosevelt book, and I would take out that book every so often and just page through to look at those pictures, just to remind myself of the reality of the time and of the people. We're all the same. And, of course, one of the joys of my work is to bring people to life and to make the reader feel what it was like to have been alive then, to have part of that.

If you want the facts on some aspect of history -- whether it is Roosevelt, or whatever -- you can get that in an encyclopedia. That's not why I write books. I want you to feel it, to sense the story. I really don't think of myself as a historian. I don't call myself a historian. I'm a writer whose milieu, if you will, is the past. And the past, you know, can be an hour ago.

Photographer unknown, 1998

David McCullough's books include The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, The Path Between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, Brave Companions, and Truman. None of his books has ever been out of print. In a crowded, productive career, David McCullough has been an editor, essayist, teacher, lecturer, and familiar presence on public television, as host of "The American Experience" and narrator of numerous documentaries such as "The Civil War." He is president of the Society of American Historians [though in this earlier interview he refused to call himself a historian]. He holds twenty-two honorary degrees and has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A gifted speaker, he has lectured in all parts of the country and abroad, as well as at the White House, as part of the White House presidential lecture series. He is also one of the few private citizens to be asked to speak before a joint session of Congress. David McCullough was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1933. He was educated there and at Yale, where he graduated with honors in English literature. He is an avid reader, traveler, landscape painter, and Sunday night spaghetti chef. He lives in West Tisbury with his wife Rosalee Barnes McCullough. They have five children and twelve grandchildren. He is currently at work on a book about the intertwining lives of John and Abigail Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Critic John Leonard, writing in The New York Times, said that David McCullough was incapable of writing a page of bad prose and that "we have no better social historian."

Text and illustrations Copyright © 1981, 2006 by Paul Giambarba. Not to be reproduced in any manner.

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